Kate Pritchard

Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail after the death of her mother and the dissolution of her marriage, was one of 2012’s biggest and best books. Even Oprah thought so; she made it her first pick when she relaunched her book club! With its clear-eyed portrayal of Strayed’s all-consuming sorrow and loneliness, and the incredible story of her (some might say foolhardy) determination to seek answers in an unforgiving landscape, Wild was #2 on the BookPage editors’ Best of 2012 list.

Strayed’s memoir encompasses so many different themes—grief, adventure, the healing power of nature, the journey to forgiveness and growth, discovering a community of like-minded misfits—that each reader takes away something different. If you’re longing for something in a similar vein, try one of the following.


Let's Take the Long Way Home by Gail CaldwellLet’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell

Like Wild, Let’s Take the Long Way Home is a heartbreaking but beautifully told memoir of living through loss. When Gail Caldwell met Caroline Knapp, the two formed a quick, deep bond over such shared experiences as the joys and frustrations of writing, long walks with their beloved dogs and their self-destructive, alcoholic pasts. Knapp was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2002 and died a few short months later; Caldwell’s grief over the loss of her friend knocked her flat. Her book is a powerful testament to a close friendship and the person she has become in its wake.
 


Claiming Ground by Laura BellClaiming Ground by Laura Bell

Laura Bell’s life has taken many unexpected turns. After graduating college in the 1970s, she had a hard time figuring out who, or what, she wanted to be. So she turned to what she knew to be real and true—her love of animals and the land—and moved to Wyoming to become a sheepherder. It was not an easy job, especially for a young woman, but she learned to face her failures and celebrate her strengths, all the while reveling in the harsh splendor of the Western landscape. Over the years, she turned to different jobs (forest ranger, masseuse) and different people for companionship, surviving divorce and agonizing loss along the way. Inspiring in the best way, Bell’s memoir chronicles a lifetime of learning how to be herself.


Townie by Andre Dubus IIITownie by Adre Duhus III

The working-class neighborhoods of Lowell, Massachusetts, are no place for a young boy to admit to any weakness. In such an environment, Andre Dubus III grew up poor and, by age 11, the child of an acrimonious divorce. After years of enduring taunts and violence against his family, he fought back, transforming himself into a strong, vicious boxer and brawler. Eventually, he turned to writing as a way to lift himself out of misery and the dead-end life he was living, and also to untangle his relationship with his father after a serious injury. Light reading it is not, but readers who loved Wild for its unflinching look at Strayed’s sad and troubled family will appreciate the portrait of love and loneliness that Dubus paints in Townie.


Fire Season by Philip ConnorsFire Season by Philip Connors

Philip Connors has spent many summers as a fire lookout in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico, a job that allows him to attune himself deeply to the natural world around him. Though the work is not as physically demanding as hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, it requires long hours of solitude and the close, thorough observation of the forest. With nothing but the sights and sounds of the woods to distract him, Connors can achieve a sort of meditative peace that lends itself well to the daily practice of writing. When he observes that natural fires (caused by lightning strikes) are often beneficial, even necessary, to the survival of the forest’s ecosystem, readers will realize that the truths he uncovers on the mountain may have meaning in their own lives as well.


A Walk in the Woods by Bill BrysonA Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

If you’re looking for a lighter take on the experience of long-distance hiking, Bill Bryson’s modern classic A Walk in the Woods is essential reading. Like Strayed, Bryson is not exactly prepared for the rigors of the journey when he sets out to hike the Appalachian Trail, and his bumbling efforts and dry humor make for an irresistible combination. Along the way, he learns about the history and allure of the AT and meets a number of curious characters—including his traveling companion, a cranky, monosyllabic and somewhat rundown friend from his high school days.

 


Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs by Heather LendeTake Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs by Heather Lende

Heather Lende, columnist for the Anchorage Daily News, has been compared to writers such as Anne Lamott and Annie Dillard for her gentle but deep-seated spirituality and her love of the natural world—in this case, the mountainous beauty of her Alaska home. In this collection of essays and observations, Lende writes with grace and humor about challenges and triumphs both personal and communal, and captures the spirit of community that infuses her small town. Like Strayed, Lende struggles with big questions, and finds inspiration in the beautiful but unforgiving landscape around her.

Strayed's memoir encompasses so many different themes that each reader takes away something different. If you're longing for something in a similar vein, try one of the following.

Andrew Solomon takes the subjects of his books very seriously, exploring them at great length, often for years at a time. His latest book, Far from the Tree (now out in paperback), which examines the families of children who are profoundly different from their parents, was more than a decade in the making. Solomon interviewed hundreds of families, as well as doctors, researchers, activists and anyone else who could offer him insight. He writes about schizophrenic children, children with Down syndrome, children born with multiple severe disabilities and even child prodigies, but at heart the book is about what it means for a parent to love a child who is different—as all children are, in one way or another—and to love the difference in that child.

Solomon answered a few questions for BookPage about the families he spoke with, the writing process and how his research has influenced his relationship with his own children.

This book is such a massive undertaking, with a wide breadth of experiences covered and hundreds of families interviewed. At what point did you realize just how huge the book was going to be? Were you ever tempted to pare it down?

If I’d known how huge it was going to be, I probably wouldn’t have started with it—it was a sprawling undertaking and utterly overwhelming. But as I kept working, I felt more and more strongly that I needed to write about the breadth and nuance of the questions I was tackling. I felt I couldn’t make the broad generalizations without having the foot soldiers of narrative. Having said that, I did pare the book down a great deal; the first draft was twice the length of the final version.

The families you spoke with included deaf children, transgender children, children of rape, children with autism, child prodigies and more, all of whom come with unique sets of challenges and particular joys. How often did you find yourself comparing one set of children with another, and in what ways?

The book is not about the individual syndromes, though it covers them in considerable detail. The book is about the similarities between these various experiences. I have posited that the negotiation of the difference one sees in one’s children is at the center of parenthood. I have yet to meet a parent who has not sometimes looked at his or her child and said, “Where did you come from?” So these more extreme stories of difference illuminate all parenting. And I think what I found is that our differences unite us—that the experience of negotiating difference is common to most of humanity. So I compared the experience of families all the time. And I felt that even for these very diffuse experiences, there was a uniting central set of experiences.

I have yet to meet a parent who has not sometimes looked at his or her child and said, “Where did you come from?” So these more extreme stories of difference illuminate all parenting.

Did you think before beginning your research that one type of child—one set of challenges—would be preferable to another, and did that perception change as you were writing the book?

I thought when I began that none of these were desirable characteristics, and I ended up thinking it was possible to find meaning in any of them. In some cases, my shift felt especially radical: I had thought of autism as a tragedy, and ended up thinking that it is often simply a part of human variation; I had thought of being transgender as a little grotesque, and now I have many transgender friends. I hadn’t really been exposed to the lives that went with these ways of being, and so the surprises were more radical than those I encountered among, for example, deaf people. Having said all that, I felt that schizophrenia offers more pain and fewer rewards than many other conditions. There are people who have schizophrenia and are nonetheless able to live incredibly productive, good lives—but I never met anyone who loved his schizophrenia and didn’t want to imagine a life without it. And I think crime is an identity against which we must always strive because its inherent nature is to damage the social fabric. In essence, however, I found that people value the experiences they have had over those they have not had. So, preferable? Many people preferred the challenge they had, because most people love their own children with all the challenges those children occasion.

You get into such personal territory in your interviews with these families. Were there ever questions you felt you couldn’t ask, or topics you felt you couldn’t discuss?

I’m a fairly bold interviewer, so there’s not much I felt I couldn’t ask. But there were questions that were hard. I asked some people whether they would have chosen an abortion if they had known ahead of time what characteristic their child would manifest. I asked some parents who seemed to love their child whether they also accepted that child for who he or she was. I asked a few parents whether they regretted becoming parents. And I asked some people who treated their condition as an identity whether they didn’t also see it as an illness.

You became a parent yourself during the course of writing this book. How do you think writing the book has influenced your own parenting style or your relationship with your children?

I hope that the book has made me more accepting, more willing to see my children for who they are. I know it has made me question the dynamic between what I can and should change in my children (teach them values, manners, skills) and what I should accept (see their identities and celebrate them). The work on the book made me more confident that I could love any child I had, and I love the ones I’ve got. I think I love them more wisely for having heard so many compelling stories from so many other families.

What were you most surprised by in writing this book?

I was surprised at how social progress and medical progress are often on a collision course. Social progress demonstrates that stigmatized characteristics can be worthy of celebration; medical progress eliminates those same qualities. They’re in a kind of strange race with each other. I believe in both the social and the medical progress, but I wish they were more awake to each other.

You’ve said that your next book will be about maternal love. Can you talk a little more about your concept for the book and what drew you to that topic?

It’s about how we are redefining motherhood and fatherhood in an era when women work and men are involved in childcare, and how that conversation relates to the advent of single mothers by choice, gay families, international adoption, older parents and so on. 

Andrew Solomon takes the subjects of his books very seriously, exploring them at great length, often for years at a time. His latest book, Far from the Tree (now out in paperback), which examines the families of children who are profoundly different from their parents, was more than a decade in the making. Solomon interviewed […]

If Emma Brockes’ memoir She Left Me the Gun reminds you of Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, don’t be surprised. Both books grapple with a larger-than-life mother whose formative experiences in the harsh landscape of southern Africa turned them somewhat eccentric, even melodramatic. But while Fuller’s mother held on for dear life to their farm in what was then Rhodesia, Brockes’ mother, Paula, fled South Africa as soon as she could manage it and lived the rest of her life in England, raising her daughter in the kind of sleepy suburban security she could only have dreamed of as a child.

Furthermore, as it turns out, Paula wasn’t just escaping the heat, the scorpions or the poisonous racial politics in the country of her birth. She was also leaving behind a brutal past marked by abuse.

Throughout Brockes’ childhood, her mother kept the truth about her family under wraps. It was only after she became very sick with cancer that Paula revealed she had testified against her father at a trial. “Deathbed revelations weren’t something people had,” Brockes writes. “That my mother, who would ring me at work with the newsflash that she’d found the socks she was looking for . . . had managed to keep this from me was extraordinary.” Still, even then, Paula wasn’t entirely forthcoming about the details of the disturbing charges against her father.

Brockes, an only child, felt unmoored after her mother’s death; she thought there was more to Paula’s past than she’d let on, but she also craved a connection with her mother’s family back in South Africa, many of whom she’d never met. Flying to Johannesburg to meet her mother’s siblings and oldest friends, Brockes was seeking some grand revelations, and she was not disappointed. These stories are doled out in bits and pieces, foreshadowed and then fulfilled. Along the way, a remarkable family narrative emerges, one with more than its fair share of darkness. Yet Paula herself is not only a sympathetic figure, but even a triumphant one. The love that her seven younger siblings still feel for her is palpable, and her daughter’s admiration only grows with her deeper understanding of her mother’s past.

She Left Me the Gun illuminates the necessary fictions we create when trying to understand our family history, as well as the relief, and even pride, that comes from knowing the truth of our origins, however sad or strange they may be.

If Emma Brockes’ memoir She Left Me the Gun reminds you of Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, don’t be surprised. Both books grapple with a larger-than-life mother whose formative experiences in the harsh landscape of southern Africa turned them somewhat eccentric, even melodramatic. But while Fuller’s mother held on for dear […]

Rachel Hartman’s debut YA novel, Seraphina, is a richly imagined fantasy, set in a world where dragons can take human form. A New York Times bestseller that has won accolades from such masters of the fantasy genre as Tamora Pierce, Naomi Novik and Christopher Paolini, Seraphina won the 2013 William C. Morris Award, given every year by the American Library Association to an outstanding debut novel for teens. We asked Hartman a few questions about her wonderful book and its well-deserved honor.

What was the first thing that went through your head when you found out you had won the Morris Award?
The Morris Committee called me a day in advance to let me know I had won. My first thought was that I hadn’t heard them correctly. My second thought (which I actually uttered out loud, making everyone laugh) was, “Oh, good, now I won’t be up all night worrying whether I won!” Of course, then it turned out I couldn’t sleep because I was excited.

Who was the one person you couldn’t wait to tell about your award?
My editor. We worked so long and hard on this book, he deserved to know. He has a new baby, though, and so it took him a long time to see the email. I emailed my agent too, and told him to poke my editor with a stick and make him read his email. My agent, who is a bit more action-oriented and logical than I am, just called him on the phone.

Do you have a favorite past Morris winner?
Elizabeth Bunce and Blythe Woolston have both kind of taken me under their (virtual) wings online, which I’ve really appreciated. They’re super nice, and I hope we can all hang out someday!

What’s the best part of writing books for a younger audience?
How keenly I’m reminded of what it was like to fall in love with books at that age. It’s a wonderful age, where everything feels possible and a book can still change your life. That was the time of life when I read with the most wholehearted abandon, and so that’s the age I prefer to write for.

What kind of reaction have you gotten from your readers about this book?
I’ve gotten appreciation (and criticism!) from all kinds of unanticipated angles. Readers really give you a new view of your own book. My favourite reactions, though, are when the book strikes readers deeply, when they have that hair-raising, slightly spooky feeling that I have reached into their hearts and minds, somehow, and have written this book just for them. I love it when a book affects me that way, and the realization that my book can do that for others is really moving.

Had you read or listened to past Morris acceptance speeches? Were you excited (or worried!) about your own speech?
I read all of them, yes, trying to figure out what angle to take, and I was very nervous indeed. I wrote a speech, but it felt very wooden to me, so when I got up to the podium I just spoke, some of it planned, much of it impromptu.

What’s next for you?
I’m hard at work on the sequel to Seraphina. It’s a beast of a book, and has been very challenging to write. But then, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Rachel Hartman’s debut YA novel, Seraphina, is a richly imagined fantasy, set in a world where dragons can take human form. A New York Times bestseller that has won accolades from such masters of the fantasy genre as Tamora Pierce, Naomi Novik and Christopher Paolini, Seraphina won the 2013 William C. Morris Award, given every […]

Nick Lake’s novel In Darkness, about a boy who survives the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010, is a harrowing but beautifully written book, the kind of story that can open up a whole new world to its readers. Our reviewer called it “incredible,” and the 2013 Printz Award Committee agreed, giving In Darkness its highest honor. Lake, a children’s book editor at Harper UK (when he’s not writing his own books for children and teens), answered a few questions for us about what it’s like to win the Printz.

What was the first thing that went through your head when you found out you had won the Printz Award?
The first thing that went through my head was that it must be a mistake. This was also the second thing, and the third. I actually asked the committee if they wouldn’t rather give it to someone else. Evidently not an orthodox response because they laughed nervously over 5,000 miles of phone line. But really, there have been so many amazing books this year—Code Name Verity and The Fault in Our Stars, to name just two—that my predominant feeling was disbelief. Then gratitude, obviously, and elation. Followed swiftly by trepidation. That sense of: What if someone finds out I paid my dog to write it? (I don’t have a dog.) But I think my mind has a tendency to look for the catch. Is that weird? Maybe it’s weird.

Who was the one person you couldn’t wait to tell about your award?
My wife, Hannah—she is my inspiration, muse, and first and toughest editor. It’s a cliché, but I wouldn’t be writing at all without her. Then I tried to show my two-year-old daughter the webcast, and she turned it off and found Where’s Spot on YouTube instead.

Do you have a favorite past Printz winner?
I think it’s a tie between How I Live Now and Looking for Alaska. They’re both such utterly beautiful books, and beyond that, I feel that they changed the landscape of YA fiction; they rewrote the rules as to what it was possible to do in a novel for teenagers, much as Holes and Coraline did for middle grade. John Green and Meg Rosoff just tower over this genre, for me.

What’s the best part of writing books for a younger audience?
Oh, that’s a hard one. I don’t really know. I’m not one of those writers who particularly enjoys writing. When I’m actually working on a book it’s more like a compulsion, a desperate urge to get to the end and get it out of my head. And when I’m revising, it feels like torture—like rewriting homework. But when I’m not writing I feel unanchored somehow, and I’m constantly thinking of things and making notes that eventually build into a story that then has to be compulsively written down and it all starts again. So it’s just an endless cycle of frustration in some ways. I’m not in any sense comparing myself to George Saunders but I recently read an interview where he expressed a similar thing (more eloquently than me, of course), so at least I know it’s not just me.
But . . . I guess it’s the feedback—young people are so immediate and unguarded in what they say. If they don’t like something, they say so. Like, they email me to say that the ending of a book is totally wrong. And vice versa. I had an email from an ex-gang member in LA who had read Blood Ninja, and said it was the first book he had ever read, and it had inspired him to get into reading. I remember vividly thinking that I could give up at that point and feel satisfied.

Have you read or listened to past Printz acceptance speeches? Are you excited (or worried!) about your own speech?
Listened? They RECORD it? Oh god.
Worried. Very, very worried. Public speaking about my own work is my nemesis. Put me up there in my editor role and ask me to speak about one of the authors I publish, and I’m fine. But this? I am anxious about it already. Luckily I live a long way from Chicago, so a lot of my attention will be focused on how to get a toddler through a 12-hour flight. . . .

What’s next for you?
The next book is called Hostage Three. It’s published in the U.K. already and coming out in the U.S. this fall. It’s told by a very rich, very privileged girl called Amy, who is acting out at home but has gone through some bad stuff in her life, and is deeply scarred on the inside. Then her father makes the sudden decision to buy a luxury yacht and take Amy and her stepmother on a round-the-world trip, much against Amy’s will. But they don’t get far before the yacht is captured by Somali pirates. It’s kind of a thriller mixed with a fairy tale, and a love story of sorts too—because Amy gets close to one of her captors. Maybe too close. No, scratch that: definitely too close. And then everything unravels. . . .

Nick Lake’s novel In Darkness, about a boy who survives the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010, is a harrowing but beautifully written book, the kind of story that can open up a whole new world to its readers. Our reviewer called it “incredible,” and the 2013 Printz Award Committee agreed, giving In Darkness its […]

Beth Howard’s marriage to her German husband Marcus was passionate but often tumultuous. His job required long hours and frequent relocations, and over the course of six years she often felt that he didn’t pay enough attention to her own needs. During the summer of 2009, they were living apart—Marcus in Germany, where he had just been relocated once again, and Howard in Terlingua, Texas, working on a memoir about her stint as pie baker to the stars in Malibu. But when Howard suggested they make a plan to see each other during Marcus’ vacation in August, he dismissed her; he was too overwhelmed with plans and schedules at work, and didn’t want to think about making any more arrangements. Fed up, she asked for a divorce.

Marcus protested, but she held firm. That August, instead of coming to see her in Texas, Marcus flew to Portland, Oregon, the city they considered their home base, prepared to sign their divorce papers. A few hours before he was to meet with their divorce mediator, he collapsed and died of a ruptured aorta.

“Psychologists call it complicated grief,” she writes. “Complicated grief is when someone you are close to dies and leaves you with unresolved issues, unanswered questions, unfinished business. . . . Complicated grief is when you ask your husband for a divorce you don’t really want, and he dies seven hours before signing the papers.”

Devastated, Howard returned to Portland to grieve and to figure out what to do next. She turned to the most wholesome, healing activity she could imagine: baking pie. Though her initial attempts to find a job as a baker were unsuccessful, she soon met a friend of a friend who suggested that they travel around the country shooting footage for a potential TV series about pie. They started out with a trip around California, interviewing longtime pie makers, making pie with a group of eight- and nine-year-olds, revisiting the pie shop in Malibu where Howard had worked several years earlier and baking 50 pies to hand out on the streets of L.A. for National Pie Day.

The series didn’t get picked up, but the trip had given Howard enough momentum to keep her going on a new path—one that eventually brought her to Iowa, where she had grown up (and where they know a thing or two about pie), to judge the pie contest at the Iowa State Fair. On a whim, one day she visited the American Gothic House, and learned, surprisingly, that it was for rent. She moved in and, naturally, opened up a pie stand.

Howard’s journey may seem aimless at times, but through it all she is an engaging and sympathetic narrator, and the reader is drawn into her story of grief and healing. You will put down Making Piece believing, as Howard does, that “Pie is comfort. Pie builds community. Pie heals. Pie can change the world.” And if you still need further proof, just try out one of the recipes she includes at the end.

Beth Howard’s marriage to her German husband Marcus was passionate but often tumultuous. His job required long hours and frequent relocations, and over the course of six years she often felt that he didn’t pay enough attention to her own needs. During the summer of 2009, they were living apart—Marcus in Germany, where he had […]

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